With 5 days to go to the EU referendum, this may be a perhaps a little late. But it no longer seems tenable to host a blog about politics without commenting on the biggest political issue of the day. Indeed, the biggest political decision most of us will make in our lifetimes.
Despite knowing for months how I was going to vote, I’ve put off writing a blog because I felt I didn’t have all the answers or the expert knowledge. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped most people who have got involved in the debate. And the nearer the vote comes, the more I realise how important the issues are. So the time has come to stop hiding behind excuses. It’s time to say I’ll be voting to Remain in the EU and to untangle the arguments to show you why.
I’ve never really understood why the call to leave the EU should come so strongly from the Conservative party. Our modern neo-liberal capitalist society is epitomised in the EU. A free market unfettered by trade barriers and tariffs. A place where the price of goods and services are set by the market, just as wages are. Where jobs are created by the supply and demand of the market, and people are free to move to where the jobs are. The capitalist free market works only where you have free movement of goods, capital and people and the EU is a massive free market zone. If that’s what you believe in, why on earth would you want to leave it?
Actually, I suspect most of those on the Leave side don’t really want out of this neo-liberal paradise. They have other reasons for leaving, and are busy trying to make sure that we will still be able to be a part of this unfettered market by negotiating our own individual trade deal when we leave. However, if we really want to continue with a tariff-free trading arrangement for our goods and services into the EU, we are going to have to agree to stick with the free movement of capital and people too. That’s how it works. That’s how it works for Norway, and for Switzerland. We’re not going to get a better trade deal with the EU by refusing to sign up to all the rules of the club.
Running close alongside this argument, is the idea that leaving the EU will free us up from the EU’s bureaucracy and red tape. Now, this is something I have dealt with in a blog. In short, if we want our goods and services to be acceptable to an EU market, they will have to comply with EU regulations. And most of this red tape is more like gift ribbon, protecting workers’ rights, quality assurance, our health and safety and our environment.
I’m really not a fan of neo-liberal capitalism, but we’ll still be stuck with it even if we leave the EU. So that’s not the argument for me.
Somewhat paradoxically, the EU is also the source of much that has a left-wing feel about it. I guess that’s what happens when you’re working with the French. Things like the Social Chapter, protecting pregnant and part-time workers, and the European Working Time directive, protecting over-time pay. Not every flavour of government in this country would work to bring about these kinds of protections, so I’m glad of the EU in this case.
During the debate, there has been a lot of talk about the amount of money it costs us to be
part of the EU. The figures have been hotly disputed and like has not been compared with like. But it is clear that the amount of money that leaves the UK and goes to Brussels is a very small percentage of government spending (less than 2%). And a lot of it comes back. A lot of it comes back to things that I don’t believe the current government would spend it on, and things I know for sure that previous governments of the same type wouldn’t have spent it on. Having lived there for 14 years, I saw transformation in Liverpool through EU money, as Capital of Culture and other projects. And we also found out that one Mrs T’s preferred option for Liverpool was one of ‘managed decline’.
Now I’m in Yorkshire, where the local news compared money leaving the region for Europe to money coming in. Pound for pound (or euro for euro!) more money goes to the EU per head for Yorkshire and Humberside than comes back in inward investment. But financial benefits of the resulting jobs from that investment is harder to quantify. Would the same money have been spent in the region by the UK government if it hadn’t got to Europe? It seems unlikely, as the region received 3% less government spending than the national average. It seems the EU is more likely to deliver than any so-called Northern Powerhouse.
Leave campaigners can suggest all kinds of things they would like to spend money on which is saved by leaving the EU. But only whoever is in power if we leave will actually decide where that money goes. Economists predict our national income will shrink if we leave. If so, any savings will be swallowed up in a smaller economy. But even if there is some left to spend, George Osborne doesn’t have a strong track record of generosity to the needy, and in this arena, I trust Boris Johnson and Michael Gove even less.
Do I really mind giving money to the EU? Actually, no. I’m sure there are inefficiencies and wastage. (Is it really a good idea to decamp to Strasbourg every few weeks?) But just as our money comes back to us in funding for research, and investment in deprived places etc, so our money is spent on even more of these projects in other EU countries where the need is even greater than ours.
There are complaints that the EU is undemocratic. Only one of the bodies involved in legislating is unelected – the European Commission which proposes and drafts EU legislation. It functions rather like our civil service. EU heads of government (the European Council) set EU priorities, and the EU parliament and council of ministers debate and vote on legislation.
I’m afraid I can’t get too worked up by this argument, when we live daily with our own ‘democratic deficit’ in the UK. A system which returns governments elected by only around a third of those who voted and less than a quarter of all those eligible to vote has a democratic deficit of its own. Both need reform, but that’s never going to happen from the outside.
Perhaps there is an EU democratic deficit, but mainly on our part. How many people know who their MEPs are? Have you ever written to them, asked them to intervene on your behalf? I’ve had a great response from my MEP, Linda McAvan, when I’ve contacted her. She’s been involved in bringing about legislation to regulate the mining industry (top culprits in sucking resources out of poor countries) and making sure minerals used in electronic technology are traceable and haven’t been used to fund wars (so-called conflict minerals).
I’ll admit this is a bit niche, but it is the kind of the thing the EU can do, which countries on their own can’t. Which finally, after two pages of this stuff, brings me to the real reason why I’m in. Maybe we could do this on our own, but we can do it much better together.
Immigration has coloured and clouded this debate from the start – as it has UK politics for a while. We haven’t debated this issue wisely or well. There is a lack of clarity but plenty of shouting.
I’ve done quite a bit of shouting myself, mostly at the telly, mostly about words. But words matter, and lots of words in this debate are used interchangeably, when they shouldn’t be. So I’m actually going to start with the word ‘refugee’. The crisis facing Europe at the moment is a refugee crisis, not a migrant crisis. The streams of people desperate to enter Europe are fleeing violence, war, persecution and starvation. Mostly they come from Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Their homes have been destroyed, they are not safe because of their religion or their politics, or because their government is attacking them or is unable to prevent others from attacking them. Their children cannot go to school, they cannot access medicines or food. By any measure, these people need our help, they need refuge, the country they call home is no longer safe, and they have a right to ask for safety elsewhere.
There is not one country which could help all of these people, though it looks like Germany has tried. But the EU could and should act together and provide refuge and safety. I want to stand in solidarity with my European neighbours to act in support of those who are fleeing. But actually it feels like we have already left Europe on this issue, refusing to agree to welcome our share of needy people, opting out of agreements to help. The EU has not handled this situation well. But I believe in the UK we have handled it even less well, and it is this lack of solidarity and sense of humanity which has made it worse.
All of this is quite different to people moving to the UK to look for work or opportunity. Most of this is pretty well regulated, certainly when it comes to people from outside the EU. And I think I’ve already dealt with EU migration in the discussion above. I don’t believe for a minute that the EU will give us any kind of trade deal without including the free movement of people. So if we want to trade with the EU – in or out – it won’t make any difference.
There are other global issues where we need to continue to stand together to make a difference. The biggest crisis facing the world right now is climate change. We will make much more progress in cutting carbon emissions and halting global warming if we work with the EU than if we work alone. We’ve already benefitted from the EU’s work on the environment now that we have clean beaches to enjoy. So we know we can make a difference. I guess the EU could carry on this work without us, but we have a crucial role to play within the EU. We can be leaders on this issue in terms of technology and our grassroots movements of activists. If we stand alone, we are both poorer for it.
Who are we?
I think we have forgotten that we are in the EU not just for what we can get out of it, but also for what we contribute to it. And here, I’m not talking about money. What does it say about us if we decide to stand alone? I think we already know a bit how it feels because we have been so ambivalent about the EU for so long already. We already know we are unloved because no-one votes for us in the Eurovision Song Contest! To leave is to shut the door on friendship, partnership and working together. Sure, we can still work with our European partners, but what is the message we are giving off?
To leave is to say that we don’t belong, that Europeans are different, foreigners, other, and we don’t want any of that over here, thank you. Where is our famed British tolerance when we turn our backs on our neighbours? To remain is to say that we want to be part of a European future together. We do belong, we have shared history, shared ambitions for peace and stability in the future of our continent. We need to choose to stay, and we need to choose to embrace Europe. To give of our passions, of our wisdom and yes, of our wealth. To support parts of Europe where poverty stubbornly digs its heels in. To stand firm with our neighbours against the rise of hate-filled, racist far-right ideologies. To remember that we are a country of compassion and take care of frightened people looking for a safe place to call home. To get our hands dirty and get involved and be prepared to say we are European.
If we leave, both the UK and the EU will be diminished, as the poem below expresses so well. I hope and pray that after next Thursday the bell will not be tolling for us.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.